I would like to thank those of you who took the time to share insights on the discussion topics I proposed and those who expressed an interest in taking part to the review of the farm sustainability methodology that we are developing. We will incorporate feedback received in the documents, and share them with the community once ready.
It was extremely interesting to hear first-hand experience with these challenges from such a wide range of different geographical contexts, and practical ways to overcome them.
Below is a summary of the lessons learnt from the discussion:
Participatory design of M&E initiatives:
I was happy to see several members underlining the importance of designing M&E activities that target farmers in a participatory way.
A key point raised is the need to devote time at the start of activities to explain the reasons why data is being collected, to understand priorities of the local community, and to identify issues—and indicators to measure these—that are meaningful to farmers, so that these can be included in the assessment to the extent possible. Another good practice at the start of activities is the sharing of assessment questions with farmers (either directly or through their representatives or local community leaders), to gather feedback and refine questions. In order to increase engagement in the process, a kick-off event should be organised before the start of activities, to present the proposed M&E indicators and give farmers the opportunity to select those they find most relevant, or to propose additional or alternative ones.
In this sense, while M&E exercises will have to be designed to ensure project interventions can be properly assessed, it is equally important to recognize and incorporate farmers’ needs and the issue they face, and strike a balance between their needs and those of the project/evaluation. As one member noted, in some cases this might mean setting aside some of the questions or indicators originally planned.
At data collection stage, where possible, facilitators and enumerators should be recruited from within local communities, and sufficient time should be dedicated to train them on the methods and tools used (e.g. digital data collection applications). This facilitates local ownership of the process, helps transfer knowledge and enhance local capacity, and in turn can increase sustainability of project interventions over time. Where possible, data collection should also include participant-led methods, for example community mapping of challenges experienced locally that can add further depth to quantitative and qualitative data collected through surveys and interviews. Involving farmers in the interpretation of findings can ensure their perspective is heard, therefore improving overall reliability and depth/quality of information collected.
Interviews: logistical arrangements & practical considerations:
In this regard, a first point raised the need to ensure that farmers are interviewed at their preferred setting and time taking into account farmers’ work schedule and on-farm activities (for instance, assessment exercises could be schedule between farming seasons). If women are the target. allowing them to bring their children and avoiding lunch hours can make it easier for them to participate. Several community members also highlighted that farmers should be compensated somehow for their time. Compensation can be either financial, especially when meetings take up a substantial amount of time and result in e.g. the loss of a full work day, or in-kind and symbolic through small gifts or drinks and refreshments. However, caution should be exercised when considering monetary compensation, as financial incentives can potentially influence assessment participation and interview results.
Members also provided valuable advice on best practices to observe during data collection. These include distributing written materials with information about the programme that participants can keep and share with other households members; allowing space for Q&A sessions; including extension workers in the assessment, as they are generally the ones maintain relationships with farmers throughout the year; and using appropriate language—for example refraining from defining activities specifically as “monitoring” and “evaluation”, and limiting the use of technical jargon—to put interviewees at ease and ensure understanding of questions being asked.
Dissemination and discussion of results
Members highlighted how participatory approaches should extend to results discussion and dissemination, and also underlined the value of farmer-to-farmer exchange and peer learning. Comparing and discussing results from project interventions for those farmers who joined activities and those who have not can provide a valuable learning ground and encourage increased participation in the project. I see an immediate entry point for this in the case of our project, which focuses on supporting the adoption of sustainable farm management practices: farmers who may be hesitant to try out new practices may change their opinion after hearing from peers about tangible benefits from these.
In terms of practical organization of events to discuss results and facilitate peer learning, members suggested organizing farmer knowledge exchange events, farm visits, and informal gatherings to encourage information sharing among peers that use a common language. The emphasis in these events should be on facilitating a participatory discussion of findings; on discussing lessons learnt from the farmers’ perspectives; and on identifying ways that assessment results can be beneficial to them and their communities. In addition, a participatory approach to the sharing of findings can also serve to ground-truth results from evaluation surveys.
Sending a summary of results in advance to farmers can increase their engagement into discussion of findings. When presenting results, farmers should be encouraged to explain them in their own words, and to share main lessons learnt from the exercise in terms of farm sustainability management. Also, grouping farmers into interest groups (e.g. youth farmers, or farmers involved in a specific aspect of the supply chain) can increase interest in the discussion of specific parts of the assessment results that are more useful to them.
Many underlined the added value of visual aids, including videos, presentation, infographics and illustrations and using local language to facilitate discussion around topics at hand, and of local information networks and systems (e.g. instant messaging platforms) to disseminate lessons learnt beyond the immediate group of participants.
Thank you very much again to the EvalForward community for this interesting discussion!